Friday, January 28, 2011

The Blue Mountains

Last Saturday, all of us left Sydney to spend a weekend in the Blue Mountains, located about two hours outside of the city. The weather here has been hot and humid so we were all looking forward to getting out into the bush and into some cooler temperatures. After our stop at the Mt. Annan Botanic Gardens that Andy mentioned, we arrived at the site of our first lecture/hike, the aptly named Scenic World, located next to the Blue Mountain National Park. Scenic World is a huge tourist destination complete with a near vertical train ride to the trail head set to the theme song from Indiana Jones. Cheesy, yes, but stunningly beautiful too. Here we took a short hike to start becoming familiar with some of the local flora and then rode a gondola back up to the top where our bus was parked.

The Blue Mountains with the 3 Sisters on the left

The train down to the trail head

The mascot for the national park, the Mountain Devil,
named after the seed pod of the plant of the same name.

The real Mountain Devil with its foliage. The seed emerges
 from the split between its ears.

After our time at Scenic World, it was on to our accommodations for the weekend, the Jemby Renjah eco-lodge. The lodge is set in the middle of a eucalyptus forest with boardwalks connecting the different bungalows to the main dining room/reception area and wild rosellas and king parrots flying among the trees. The lodge was built on an old logging site with minimal impact on the land. Existing fire trails were used to bring in supplies and building equipment, and pathways to the various bungalows were strategically located on already cleared land. The lodge uses solar energy to heat much of its water and compost toilets (which were surprisingly clean and odor-free) to minimize water usage. The best part was being served breakfast and dinner (fish & chips one night, steak the next) each day, a nice luxury after weeks of sandwiches; and every morning at 8:30 am guests were invited to feed the parrots with a staff member . . . really fun, but be prepared for birds landing on your head, shoulders, and arms to get to the sunflower seeds.

Jemby Rinjah

Celebrating January b-days at Jemby Rinjah with
Katy, Sara, and Hannah

A rosella hanging out on the deck

Feeding a king parrot

Our first full day in the mountains was spent on an excursion to the Jenolan Caves, a massive cave system within the Blue Mountains that was supposedly discovered by an escaped convict who used the caves as a hideout. In fact, the Aboriginal people have used the caves for thousands of years and called them Binoomea, or "dark places." In the late 1800's, two brothers explored the system by candlelight, mapping them as they went, and in the early 19th century the caves were developed into a tourist attraction and are now the most visited tourist destination in NSW. Our whole group was treated to a 2-hr long guided tour deep into the caves, where we saw stunning rock and mineral formations and walked along the river that runs through the cave system. It was an amazing experience that was hard to capture in photos, but I'll post a couple of the better ones.

Inside the caves

The "minaret"

After our tour we took our lunches and walked along the river to a swimming hole where some of the braver kids (as well as Andy and myself) jumped off the rocks into the (cold!) water. The trail to the swimming hole is also where we saw some of the local wildlife. The first animal we saw was a red-bellied black snake that was camped out next to the trail. It's extremely venomous (you would need medical attention within the hour if bitten, which would mean a helicopter ride to the hospital), but this one was a juvenile and didn't seem to be too interested in us. We're learning this is pretty typical of the snakes here. If you leave them alone they're likely to make their escape without harming you. The highlight of the day was spotting what we've been told is the animal most rarely seen in the wild here in Australia . . . the platypus! For those of you who don't know, the platypus is an aquatic mammal with a body and fur similar to a river otter, a tail like a beaver, flippers for hands and feet, and a duckbill-like mouth. To make it even stranger, it also lays eggs! It is truly a bizarre animal. I'll post a picture, but like the penguins in NZ, you'll have to take my word for it, since it's barely recognizable in the photo.

The swimming hole where we had lunch

I just jumped but unfortunately Andy missed it!

Andy mid-jump

The platypus is right in the center swimming
over the top edge of the algae . . . really!

Here's what they look like close up.

Red-bellied black snake

That night when we got back to Jemby Rinjah we had dinner and then sat around the campfire playing games and listening to our Aussie bus driver tell stories and sing us Australian campfire songs. We all sang rounds of the kookaburra song too. Any of you know that one? "Kookaburra sittin' in the old gum tree, merry merry king of the forest is he, laugh kookaburra laugh kookaburra, gay your life must be . . ." It all started when we heard the kookaburras laughing in the forest around us. It was the perfect ending to our day . . .

After breakfast on our last day, we all set off on our 6-hour bush walk down into the rainforests of the Blue Mountains. It was an amazing hike that took us through dry eucalyptus forests to the wet rainforests along the river and back up again. The hike followed an ancient Aboriginal trail and passed alongside (and sometimes under) fantastic sandstone cliffs and rock formations. We stopped for lunch at the top of a waterfall with a spectacular view of the valley. The kids, of course, had to take off their shoes and wade on the flat sandstone rocks about 10 feet from where the water went over the edge and fell to the valley floor. Andy watched like a nervous parent until they were all safely back on the trail! It was a long, steep and hot climb back to the bus, and when we got to the top we were informed by Nat that we had all walked right over a tiger snake on the trail without seeing it. And I thought I'd been keeping a good eye out for snakes!

Starting out in mostly dry
eucalyptus forest

Andy, Dick and Marnie on the trail

Lunch at the top of the waterfall

Playing a little too close to the edge!

The whole group with the Blue Mountains
behind us

We're back in Sydney now with just a little over a week left here before we move on to our next stop, an Aboriginal camp in the Hunter Valley. Andy and I plan on making the most of this week with at least a couple more trips to the beach, a tour of the Opera House, and explorations of a couple more suburbs. We'll keep you posted!


Monday, January 24, 2011

From Sydney to the Blue Mountains

Life has been a whirl of lectures and excursions since we posted our last entry, and I’m happy to say there’s nothing I’d leave out if we had to do it all over again. All of our lecturers and guides have been uniformly excellent, making it a pleasure to be a student again. Over several days we got a crash course in Australia’s colonial history as well as an overview of its major flora and fauna. Did you know that Australia has almost 800 reptile species (many of them deadly) while North America has fewer than 300? Or that eucalyptus leaves are toxic to most animals other than the koala, which is uniquely adapted to eat them? We also learned that you don’t tend to find “climax” forests dominated by one species of tree in Australia, due to the climactic extremes and relatively poor soil. Instead you find a diversity of flora marked by unique adaptations to the difficult conditions. There are, for instance, hundreds of varieties of eucalyptus trees. On an appalling note: until 1967, Australia’s Aboriginals were categorized not as humans but as part of the “flora and fauna” of the continent . . .

We encountered more appalling history at the Hyde Park Barracks downtown. The same Governor Macquarie mentioned in the last blog entry ordered a convict who’d once been an architect to design and build the barracks, where thousands of convicts slept, ate, and, most of all, worked. Inside was a replica of a wooden triangle to which convicts were tied, then lashed 50 to 100 times with a cat o’ nine tails and doused with salt water—all for such crimes as speaking too loudly or not working at a fast enough pace.

Last week our evenings were nearly as busy as our days. As part of the program, we all attended a speakers’ series called “Sydney Stories,” one evening hearing from a comedian who fled with his family from Vietnam in the 1970s, on another an Aboriginal performer involved in Australia’s civil rights movement, and on yet another a folk historian/musician who shared stories of working-class Sydney (and bawdy songs with lyrics that shouldn’t be repeated here). One night, Philip, Nat, and I also went to an interview/performance/movie in the beautiful neo-gothic quadrangle of the University of Sydney. There we had the privilege of listening to Kev Carmody, an Aboriginal folk singer who wrote and sang the music for the film “One Night the Moon,” which was shown on an enormous screen while we lay on the grass. Set in rural Australian in the 1930s, the film is both gorgeous and heartbreaking—definitely see it if you can.

The past couple of days were spent in the Blue Mountains, two hours west of Sydney. They’re dramatic not because of their height but because of the canyons carved among them. Imagine Arizona canyon country—but filled with eucalyptus trees. On the way, we stopped at a botanic garden for native species and had the bizarre experience of learning about Australian botany from a guide who told us he believes in creationism instead of evolution. At one point he said that, like Jesus Christ, shade trees are our salvation. Weird . . .

Staying with our group for our entire weekend in the mountains was Howard Barker, a naturalist/expert on all things Australian. His knowledge is truly encyclopedic—and he was extremely enthusiastic about sharing it. We were lucky to have him along, but I think we all suffered from a bit of information overload. Speaking of which, I think it’s time to finish this entry. I’ll leave it to Philip to tell you all about the snakes and mountain devils, as well as our sighting of one of the most elusive creatures in the Australian bush . . .


Hyde Park Barracks

Convict hammocks

Typical Sydney row houses

More row houses

Koala at the zoo

Philip and his new friend

View of the "Grand Canyon" in the Blue Mountains